By Terry Coffman
It was this letter that told me Jonathan was alive. I took the
train from Front Royal to Raleigh County to see Jonathan. I hardly recognized
him. He was slim, very thin, and yet his eyes were the same bright blue
that I remembered. His gait and speech were slower. Once I saw him naked
in the bathroom. He was covered in tattoos. On his back was a snake that
twisted its way from his buttocks to the nape of his neck. Jonathan would
sit alone under a magnolia tree for hours, saying nothing and looking directly
into the sun. I thought he was trying to blind himself or maybe he was
trying to find God in the light.
I found Jonathan was different than the young medic I had met so long
ago in the field hospital on the frontlines of Hell. He was withdrawn,
not arrogantly removed, but withdrawn because of uncertainty and shame.
He was lost in thoughts of where he belonged, and why he had seen, and
experienced, such terrible things. In the beginning of our relationship
he came to me for only a few weeks. It was in my darkest hours, and little
did I realize just how long our friendship was to last. In the early years
after the war, my image of him was of the tall laughing young fellow who
saw the world in naïve ways. What I found, on our first reunion, was
a soulful, inwardly calm, thirty-year old war veteran. Wounded, but not
I believe much of life is ordained to be both difficult and miraculous.
The events in our lives are not determined by our intellect, but by a greater
intelligence. We foolishly think it is our choices that are at work in
determining our fate. It is not. Divine intervention, matched to our soulís
needs, is the truth that guides us to God. When we are old and gray, we
have the maturity to look back over our lives to see that what has transpired
in this current incarnation is what we needed. We are like a jigsaw puzzle
that takes a long time to become recognizable. Our experiences accumulate
over a lifetime. Each experience joins with others to become a portrait
of who we are.
Over the course of our correspondence, I learned my friend was from
an old Virginia family. His people were landowners whose farm was not far
from where Thomas Jefferson had lived. After the conflict between the states,
the MacCumberís lost most of their land. Jonathanís great grandfather retained
a hundred acres of bottom land, and with hard work and no slaves, he managed
to raise tobacco on land that was only fit to cultivate rice. By the turn
of the century he was not only growing the finest tobacco in the Virginias,
but he began manufacturing cigarettes.
While Jonathanís father, Walter MacCumber owned and ran the tobacco
company, his two sons, a daughter, and his wife Clara, lived a very comfortable
life. The reigning patriarch planned that one day his two sons would take
over the business. But that day never came.
Jonathanís older brother was killed at 17 when his car became stuck
on the railroad tracks. A year later Walter MacCumber shot himself. Soon
after, my friendís mother sold the company. There was so much debt, no
one, not even Jonathan or his sister, was aware of how precarious the situation
was. According to my friend, her neighbors assumed his mother was still
a wealthy woman. Southern women are proud; keeping up appearances was paramount
for Mrs. MacCumber. She successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of her
neighbors by maintaining an illusion of prosperity, but when out of the
public eye, she ran her home like a poor Franciscan abbey. Jonathanís mother
was frugal and wore the same dresses and bonnets acquired during her affluent
marriage days. Most people thought she was eccentric, not poor. According
to Jonathan, he and his sister Elisabeth were oblivious to their plight.
Clara MacCumber made a game of self-denial. The MacCumber children thought
their poverty was simply play, not real, just a game.
Jonathan wrote that he and his sister both followed their motherís lead
by wearing old, out of style clothing. He said it was like sporting a costume.
They enjoyed pretending they were poor. They preferred chicken instead
of steak. Water-downed milk was better than the fancy bottled water from
France they drank at dinnertime in the old days. And, it was fun doing
chores rather then letting servants or nannies take care of cleaning, making
beds, or fixing meals. Chores meant less time for esoteric pursuits and,
best of all, no more piano lessons. When they were toddlers, field hands
not only cut the tobacco, they planted and tended the family garden. Back
then, Jonathan loved to get his hands dirty, but he was never allowed to
soil his hands. When alive, my friendís father made him wear gloves outdoors.
Dirt under the nails was cause for spankings. Now the gloves were torn
and tattered, useless shreds of canvas not to be replaced because of lack
of money. The undersides of his once aristocratic fingernails were black
and their hands scarred by brambles and barbed wire.
His mother was a master at covering up her predicament. She felt responsible
to maintain her dead husbandís reputation. To do so meant living a lie
to outsiders. Mrs. MacCumber was able to bamboozle everyone who knew or
did business with her. She had lawyers, ministers, the country club, and
even the bank, fooled. She could do without most things from her former
life, but she knew that if her children were to have a chance at a productive
life, their education would be paramount. A loan with no collateral or
application was approved by the local bank and used for her childrenís
education at exclusive private schools.
Of MacCumbers old prep school friends, his closest companion was a tall,
lanky fellow of Indian decent named Ravi. He was the grandson of the mystic
yogi Ramacharaka, known throughout India for his wisdom and compassion.
Ravi had always lived in Chicago and wanted to visit the country of his
parents and ancestors. Nothing seemed to draw Jonathan out of depression,
so when he received a letter from Ravi asking if he would like to travel
together to Dalla Chack, India, he agreed.
MacCumber told me he sent a single word telegram reply of "Yes".
Ravi lived in Chicago. He was studying medicine at Northwestern University.
His family was Brahmin, thus respected and influential Indians. They were
In one of his letters, Jonathan revealed to me, "You know Morgan,
what she was doing to us was worse, she was fooling us children. I figured
it out eventually. When I told my sister, she told me she had known for
years. I asked why she never told me. You know what she said? ĎI wanted
to protect you.í Morgan, I spent so much of my youth under the illusion
that my experiences were normal, but, in fact my life was constructed around
lies. After she told me that she knew, I swore Iíd always be a truth seeker."
Ravi took a train from Chicago to Richmond where he met Jonathan. The
two spent a few days sightseeing. They visited Confederate battlefields,
Monticello and the first capital of Virginia, Williamsburg. Each night,
after Ravi and Jonathan returned from their excursions, Jonathanís mother
fixed them southern dinners. Ravi was new to grits with gravy, Smithfield
ham, succotash and hush puppies. Coming from the big city of Chicago, he
rarely tasted garden fresh vegetables. Mrs. MacCumber made it a point to
feed him heaping amounts of beets, brussels sprouts, collards, tomatoes
and turnips that were either picked, or canned, from her garden. But, what
Ravi liked best was dessert. Peach pie and bread pudding were his favorites.
He also enjoyed making ice cream with Jonathanís sister. She took cream,
milk, vanilla bean seeds and egg yolks to make custard that was divine.
She poured the mixture in a metal canister and cranked the dasher handle.
Raviís job was to keep the rock salt and ice filled in the wooden tub where
the canister set. MacCumber said Ravi was a skinny fellow, but by the end
of his week stay, his stomach protruded and he had gained 10 pounds.
Jonathan told me that when it came time to leave, his mother asked Ravi
to watch over him saying, "Donít let my son get stepped on by an elephant
or eaten by a tiger. And, you make sure he comes home real soon." Ravi
promised. Jonathanís sister, Mary Anne, drove them to the Port of Norfolk.
There they boarded a Turkish ship.
After months upon ocean and seas, they arrived in Izmir where they caught
a slow moving train, traveling across Turkey to Karachi. The two reached
Gurdaspur in the old state of Punjab by way of the East India Railway.
In one of his letters from India MacCumber wrote, "The heat of Virginia
and the heat of India are similar, the only difference is that one is humid
and the other dry. But Morgan, I assure you it is all that is similar."
On first meeting Raviís grandfather, MacCumber said he was overcome
with a sense that he had been in this manís presence before. Years earlier
in Siam, a Buddhist monk had become his first spiritual guide. That old
monk had held his wrinkled hands together in the same praying position
as Raviís granddad. In his letter, Jonathan told me that both the monk
and the yogi smiled alike. These two holy men apparently even smelled the
same and they both spoke with few words. MacCumber sensed these two souls
were the same teacher. I have often thought that MacCumberís own soul was
MacCumber described Yogi Ramacharaka as a small man. His sepia colored
eyes reflected tranquility and looking into them was like gazing into a
cup of Darjeeling tea sweetened by honey and milk. He had a flowing white
beard and a mane of hair that touched his shoulders.
In Gurdaspur it is too hot to wear anything but lightweight clothing.
Ramacharaka preferred to cover himself in a simple short white sheath.
His thin bare chest and legs gave him the appearance of a street beggar.
He refused to wear sandals that would have protected his feet from the
gritty sand and cutting stones. He told MacCumber it was for penance. MacCumber
thought, penance for what? The man was pure. When my friend asked one of
the yogiís disciples to explain, he replied. "Man cannot be pure. To completely
surrender oneís body or mind is impossible."
When MacCumber first met Ramacharaka, the yogi asked him why he came
to India. Jonathan said that he replied, "Your grandson, Ravi, brought
Ramacharaka laughed and asked again. "I am not asking you who brought
you to me. I am asking why you came to India."
MacCumber thought he wanted a simpler reply, so he told the yogi he
came to India for experience. Ramacharaka shook his head and walked away.
Jonathan said that for days the yogi continued to ask, "Why are you here?"
MacCumber supplied many answers, but none were accepted.
Several weeks went by and Ramacharaka refused to engage in any conversation
with my friend. His only words were the question. "Why have you come to
India?" MacCumber wrote, "Morgan, I could not finesse an answer."
"Truth," Ramacharaka said, "is hard; evasion easy."
"I arrived here because I am lost," MacCumber admitted.
Ramacharaka smiled and embraced Jonathan. A tear followed the curve
of his cheek and rested upon his lip, and the wise man said, "Good, now
your soul, which is the real you, is speaking truth. Everything that is,
is eternal. Nothing is lost. Eternity exists on both sides of now; now
is only a point in eternity, and you are here now. You are never lost.
You are simply on a journey, and this is how you came to India.
It came time for Ravi and Jonathan to return home. Ravi had spent time
with his Indian relatives and was ready to take on greater responsibly
in his familyís business back in Chicago. It was time for him to leave.
For Jonathan it was different. Maybe it was because India reminded him
of Siam. Siam had given him insights into religious thought and ideas.
What he learned in the East was richer then the southern Baptist ideology
of his childhood. He asked Ramacharaka if he could stay. The wise manís
answer was, "Stay were you belong."
In the presence of Ramacharaka, MacCumber was embraced in bliss. He
treasured sitting under the cover of the shade tree that was near Ramacharakaís
house, where he listened in rapture as the yogi taught his devoted students
the meaning of journeys. The purpose of life, Ramacharaka believed, was
to find truth. My friend spent eight years with the wise man. From
1927 to 1935, Ramacharaka opened windows that allowed MacCumber to see
into his own soul; the yogi educated my friend to understand the principal
philosophical systems of India. The Yogi said, "The Ganges is the home
of Sanskrit and the mother of all religions. Our history is ancient. We
Hindus have been touching God for ten thousand years." He taught MacCumber
the origins of Hinduism, the wisdom of Buddhism, how to dance like the
Sufis, and explained the source of the pain suffered by Muslims and Christians.
One day Ramacharaka saw MacCumber speaking to several new students,
explaining the message the yogi delivered that morning to the class. The
young men were concerned that they had failed to grasp the wisdom of the
master and were therefore unworthy of being near him. They were embarrassed
when they saw Ramacharaka approach, and Jonathan was frightened that he
might anger his teacher with his translation of the spiritual manís message.
Jonathan was nervous, yet he continued to explain to the disciples the
yogiís morning lesson. Afterwards, Ramacharaka came to MacCumber and told
my friend he had the gift to become a teacher.
From that moment on, Ramacharaka used MacCumber as his assistant, allowing
him to prepare, and even give, his own lectures. MacCumber traveled throughout
India with him, and the great teacher introduced the American to the multitudes.
In 1930, while they were wandering along the Ganges, the two met the "Great
The age-old tensions between the British Government and the Indian people
were finally reaching a critical stage. Most of the population wanted the
British gone. Gandhi was seen by the faithful to be the savior who could
bring about self-rule. Ramacharaka told MacCumber that they should follow
the Great Soul as he marched to the sea.
The march was a protest against the Salt Act, a law that made it a crime
to possess salt not bought from the government. The Mahatma professed non-violence
and non-cooperation. One night a gang of thugs, whom MacCumber suspected
were British mercenaries, attempted to kidnap Gandhi. The devils forced
their way into Gandhiís midst, a fight ensued, and MacCumber was thrown
to the ground.
As he lay there, MacCumber looked up and saw the Mahatma smiling with
his arms outstretched to embrace the enemy. The Great Soul said to his
would-be captors, "Whatever a man soweth, he shall also reap. We are all
beholden to God." The kidnappers stopped their advance. Suddenly they fell
to their knees weeping and begging Gandhi for forgiveness.
MacCumber asked Ramacharaka why Gandhi chose the words of a Christian
saint in such a perilous moment. I suppose my friend thought the words
of a Hindu priest or a Muslim cleric would have been closer to his lips.
The yogi said, "I have taught you that all religions are paths to God.
The Lord has given Gandhi the wisdom to lead not only his followers, but
his enemies as well. Do you remember the Roman soldier whose ear was cut
off by the apostle in the Garden of Gethsemane? Jesus healed the man and
the centurion became a believer."
Ramacharaka was a holy man, not a religious man; he often quoted the
great prophets of the worldís religions.
MacCumber and the yogi stayed with Gandhi for several months. They and
seven followers, plus one scribe, made camp in a remote area not far from
the small village of Sanjoo. Gandhi needed rest and this was a place where
he would not be hounded by reporters, followers or enemies. Raviís grandfather
and the Mahatma prayed, plotted and rested for almost a month. "The
two men," wrote Jonathan, "are happy to be away from the crowds
and British soldiers. They love taking long walks into the remote areas
near Sanjoo. Sometimes they ask me to join them."
It was on one of these restorative walks that Gandhi was attacked, not
by spies, but by a more deadly and frightening assassin. Ramacharaka, Gandhi
and Jonathan were sitting on boulders, meditating, when a cobra slithered
from its hiding place towards Gandhi. By the time Gandhi saw the snake,
she was only three feet away from him. She lunged and missed hitting his
arm by inches. He moved slowly backward, the cobra recoiled. She watched
the Mahatmaís every attempt to move his body. Her head rocked in motion
to the manís movements, her tongue gauged Gandhiís temperature and her
eyes focused on his eyes. Saints and Martyrs are human, even holy men at
their final hour fight until their last breath to live. Gandhi was scared.
The kind of fright that momentarily freezes a man, and then, suddenly,
survival kicks and fright turns into fury.
He knew the snake was planning another strike. It came fast. The snake
caught her fangs in his robe. Gandhi screamed as she twisted her body over
and over, trying to free herself from the fabric. The serpent whipped its
hard tail across the holy manís face. He smelled the stench of her breath.
She pulled back and one of her fangs freed itself from the cotton, but
the other fang was still entangled in the white thread. The cobra pulled
her head back and tried to swallow the fabric. The hissing grew louder.
The cobra flipped its slithering body over and over, writhing to free itself.
As the serpent was gasping for air the fang tore free. Panic took hold
of both the man and snake. Venom dripped onto Gandhiís exposed leg. One
more lunge and the snake would have sunk its poison into the holy man.
The cobra raised its puffed head three feet into the air. A fang fell out
of its mouth. The cobra suspended her attack. Gandhi went from fear to
elation and, within a split second, awareness of his impending death. The
cobra did not back off. Instinctively it knew that even with one fang,
it could inflict a mortal bite.
I suspect that Jonathanís hand seemed to come out of nowhere. The serpent
never saw it coming. I knew from past letters how he caught snakes. So
I imagine my friend clamped his fingers tightly around the serpentís head
and neck. Jonathan then would have turned the creatureís head so that he
and the snake were at eye level. MacCumber then would have moved his head
from side to side and the snake would become docile. I can picture him
walking slowly away from Gandhi and releasing the cobra off in the distance.
At the end of his letter about the attack, Jonathan wrote, "We left
the next day. Gandhi was shaken, but laughed, and said to me thatís what
he deserved for trying to kiss a cobra." They continued totravel
throughout the country, building support for Gandhiís vision of an independent
India. MacCumber wrote to his sister often, but because the Great Soulís
band of disciples was constantly on the move, it was difficult for her
letters, like mine, to find my friend.
Jonathan was excited when, one day, a package arrived from his sister.
As he tore open the brown wrapping paper and opened the box, a batch of
envelopes fell to the ground. Thinking they were letters written by his
sister, Annabelle Lea, he reached down to pick them up. He was overwhelmed
when he saw that the postage stamps on the envelopes were from Siam. The
letters were postmarked in Ayutthaya. They were from Kaew, his Princess
His sisterís accompanying letter explained that while she had been boxing
up their deceased motherís books, she found the letters from Siam behind
several volumes of Yeatsí poetry. MacCumber was now faced with a dilemma.
Should he open the unread letters and risk bringing back a flood of memories?
He had been successful in hiding her in the corners of his heart.
Jonathan gathered the letters into his arms and sat down under a nearby
tree. Kaewís handwriting flowed like musical notes. Her penmanship was
perfect and the preciseness of her words gave greater clarity to her innermost
MacCumber held several of the cream-colored packets close to his face.
He took a deep breath, hoping he could catch her fragrance on the envelope.
He ran his fingers across the return address, tracing circles around the
letters that spelled her name. He opened the envelope with the earliest
postmark, dated April 10, 1927.
In my dreams, you are by my side, soft and warm as we walk in the
lemon rain that falls over Ayutthaya. We are lovers again. We sleep late
in the mornings and wake to feed the finches on the ledge of our bedroom
window. We walk along Soi Lansuan and stop for green tea with lemongrass.
Buddha smiles at us.
You are gone now and I wonder if I shall ever see you again. In my
heart I know I will never lose you. Come back to Ayutthaya, Jonathan. Come
back to me.
An arrangement has been made by my father for me to marry an older
man. He is a wealthy businessman, one of the many friends of the King.
I cannot love him, yet it is my familyís wish, and if I do not consent,
my family will be shamed.
I know what I shall I do.
I cannot live my life without you; I plan to run away. You will find
me in the ruins of Ayutthaya. I will come each morning and lay under the
tree in the old orchard where we first kissed. I will wait forever for
you to return.
Ramacharaka was standing near the river talking to a group of European
Catholic nuns. As MacCumber approached them, the mystic removed his spectacles.
Ramacharaka was about to introduce MacCumber, but stopped when he looked
at the young manís eyes. Instead, he put his arm around MacCumberís shoulder
and led his prize student away from the group.
In his letter to me, Jonathan quoted a conversation he had with Ramacharaka
concerning Kaewís correspondence.
"Have you been crying?" the guru asked.
MacCumber showed his teacher the letters from Kaew.
"Love is Godís desire for all of us," Ramacharaka said.
"Should I write back to her?" Jonathan asked.
"Fate is Godís chess board. He has moved you and the woman to different
places; if he chooses, he will bring you together again. Keep the letters,
there may come a day when you will need them. Do you recall when I told
you that you were a teacher? Well, the time has come for you to take a
different road than the one we have been traveling together. I must stay
on this side of the Ganges; you must go to the other side. Somewhere, beyond
the river, there is a place for you."
"Why canít I stay with you?" MacCumber asked. "Have I done something
wrong?" "No, of course not. You have been a devoted follower and have helped
me a great deal. But if you stay, you will not find your own path. Think
of me as a bridge over which you have crossed. I must now fall away so
that you can build bridges of your own."
"Come, I want to introduce you to these good women. You need them
more than you need me."
Ramacharaka introduced MacCumber to a Catholic nun, a Sister Borgia,
who was looking for someone to teach English to Bengali girls. In a heavy
French accent she asked, "Come with me to Calcutta, to the Moti Jheel slums.
There I will show you an oasis in a desert of poverty. Amidst the poor
who sleep in drainpipes, beg for scraps of rice, smell of dung and disease
and pick rags and lice, I have a school, Saint Maryís Entally. We produce
art and craft. Embroidery and painting give the students a chance to find
hope and salvation. They are talented, bright young women. Yet talent is
not enough. If they are to find salvation from the oppression of their
lives then we must also teach them to read and write with the same diligence
and outcomes they employ for craftsmanship and creativity."
"I thought that salvation comes to those who renounce the temporal world
for the spiritual universe of God," MacCumber said.
"No," she replied, "To know God best is to be wrapped in the cocoon
of livingness. The word God, in whatever language or religion it is used,
means that to which I belong. The Hindus say we have many life cycles and
the purpose of each one is to cleanse ourselves of selfishness. Life is
the path that leads to absorption into God."
After meeting the nun, my friend MacCumber returned to the tent of Ramacharaka
to tell his teacher that he would go with the sisters. "I will leave you
for a while, but return next year to join you for the pilgrimage to the
"No, you will not find me, Jonathan."
I recall Jonathan writing how strongly he raised his voice in response
saying, "What do mean, not find you? Of course I will find you! I will
come to Dalla Chack, meet you and the others, and we will travel to the
sacred river as we did last year."
The yogi replied, "I am going elsewhere, to a place you can not go."
MacCumber questioned, "I donít understand."
"Jonathan, all things to be seen can be found in a simple, shared bowl
Perplexed, MacCumber said, "Your riddle makes no sense to me."
The yogi smiled saying, "It will in time. You have much to experience,
much to learn, and you must travel far away before you will know the answer."
"Has the Mahatma called you to be with him?" MacCumber asked.
"The Mahatma will join me soon."
"I donít understand: why canít I join you?"
Ramacharaka smiled. "You will understand when I next speak to you. Go
with the sisters tomorrow."
During the first few months Jonathan taught at Saint Maryís Entally,
he was privileged to have a very talented student from the district of
Pradesh. Rijikari Saari was older than the other young women enrolled at
Sister Borgiaís school. Riji, as MacCumber called her, was as beautiful
as the legendary Princess of Shalimar. Rijiís dark eyes were pools in which
a man could drown. She was blessed with a complexion that looked as though
she bathed in the milk of sacred cows. Her hair was so black that it reflected
the blue sky. She was kind and gentle, loved the larks that sang in the
banyan trees and laughed with the monkeys living in the temple. She could
not harm the insects that walked beneath her feet, nor taste the flesh
of any animal. She would gladly kiss the cobras or the painted elephants
for Lord Shiva.
She was married and had two children; unfortunately one of them was
deformed by leprosy. As a young child, her son Maka developed lumps on
his face and his toes began to turn under his feet, which made it impossible
for him to learn to walk. Three of his fingers rotted away from his left
hand. Riji carried her boy on her hips until he was three. By four, his
condition worsened and he had grown too heavy for her to carry; Riji placed
him into a wheelbarrow. She pushed him to the shops, to the doctors, to
the temple, and every place they needed to go. He was her constant companion,
always happy, always smiling. It never entered his mind to ask his mother
why people scurried like rats to get away from them.
Riji proved to be an inspiration to the students at Saint Maryís Entally
School. She was an artistic person and she knew her gift of talent would
be essential to her future. Through her example of hard work and courage
her classmates discovered a path that could lead them to independence and
The first project MacCumber assigned to his students was to have them
write about themselves. It served as a test to assess their writing skills,
but more importantly for MacCumber, it offered him a way to satisfy his
curiosity and learn what brought the women to the school.
For her first essay, Riji wrote that she had always wanted to make things
with her hands. She continued, writing that as a child she was captivated
by the paintings hanging in the temple of her village. In her teens, Riji
told her father she wanted to go to school to become an artist. She quoted
him; apparently his words had been burned into her mind. He had decreed,
"No, absolutely not! There is no future for you in the arts. If you choose
to become involved in such a frivolous activity I will be unable to arrange
a husband appropriate to our class."
She wrote about how her father sent her to nursing school. In her story
she told how she met a young man who was in his last year of medical school.
He was pushy and Riji was cautious. Riji made the mistake of introducing
him to her family. Recognizing he would soon become a doctor, her father
decided the future physician would be an appropriate prospect for Riji.
Despite all her protests, her father approached the young manís family
to see if a marriage could be arranged. Her father offered a substantial
dowry. Riji was reluctant, but she was an obedient daughter. The couple
was quickly married and two children were born within two years.
When Rijiís firstborn son Sundar reached the age to go to school she
applied to Saint Entally. She decided to pursue the dream her father had
stolen from her. "For the first time in my life," she wrote, "I
would follow the path that has a heart." As Jonathan told me, "Riji
was coming to the place that had been waiting for her since she was a small
girl." MacCumber realized it would be difficult for her. Following oneís
dreams is often met with resistance. In India, family and friends, more
often than not, are uncomfortable with relatives who have a desire to live
a creative life.
Jonathan thought back to his own youth. When he was in second grade,
a teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up; he told her,
The teacher replied, "Donít be stupid, cowboys only exist on the radio.
Someday you can run your fatherís business. You want to make money, donít
Thank God my friend Jonathan MacCumber didnít take her advice.
Maka was a humiliation to his father. The less he saw of the boy around
the house the better. He hated the way his son looked and was repulsed
by the smell of his childís rotting body. To his mother, Maka was beautiful.
Anyone who had the eyes to really see into a personís soul would easily
agree. Borgia was the kind person who had the gift to see beyond the surface.
She offered Riji and her two sons the chance to live in a small room on
the campus of the school. Rijiís husband gladly agreed to let his wife
and children leave his home. But he did so only under the condition that
their son, Sundar, would come home after school to do chores. Out of fear
for her older son, Riji countered that she would return three evenings
a week. At first her husband scoffed at the idea, but then he realized
there would be opportunities for more enticing benefits without his sons
around. His wife would no longer be able to refuse his cock.
Although he had reservations about his abilities to carry out such an
important responsibility, MacCumber felt blessed to be a part of Rijiís
journey. In spite of his self-doubt, he felt compelled by his own fate
to help her. Just as he took care of me, he would do the same for Riji.
His path in life had a purpose. He was beginning to understand that the
war, his past in Siam, coming to India, and now this young Indian woman
were pre-destined for a purpose.
Jonathan had been at the school for a few months when the day came that
hurled him into one of those shifts of life that we never see coming. The
morning started just like all the others. Prayers, followed by the students
and teachers sharing chapatti and roti covered in honey and jam, a cup
of chai tea with milk and sugar, followed by morning exercise. The students
divided themselves into their designated groups. The younger ones, or as
they were called, Baloos, went to the elementary classroom. The teenagers,
or Shere Khan, gathered in the gymnasium, and the young women, who were
with child or had children, joyfully hurried off to the craft studio. These
women were designated as Rakshas, a word Kipling used for mother wolves
who are gentle with their cubs yet vicious to any predator that might threaten
MacCumber was in the classroom with the Shere Kahn, or Tiger group,
when he heard screaming coming from the schoolís garden. Rijikariís husband
had come and dragged her out of her classroom. Pulling his wife by her
arm, the struggling couple stumbled across the courtyard towards the gate
that led to Moti Jheel.
Sister Borgia blocked the way between the two and the miserable streets
of Calcutta. With hands on her broad hips and a voice that hissed like
a cornered snake, the sister confronted the man. "Why are you doing this?"
He replied, "She is a wicked wife. She neglects my meals and laundry.
She is too tired to perform her wifely obligations and she bore me a son
who is rotting."
As the nunís grip tightened around the red and black beads of the rosary,
the chain snapped, and the painted wooden balls scattered, bouncing over
the ground and rolling beneath her habit. Her eyes, framed by the white
trim of the shawl covering her shaved head, seemed to penetrate deep into
the evil soul of the Bengali physician.
The sounds that exploded from her lips were like the wails of an enraged
hyena protecting her young. "If you try to take her away, you will have
to come through me."
She pulled the large pruning shears from the hand of the gardener standing
beside her. "I was taught how to kill bulls by one of the greatest matadors
of Spain, and I will not hesitate placing this blade between your eyes!"
The man must have thought Borgia was bluffing. He grabbed his wifeís
hand and began moving toward the gate door. Suddenly, he stopped. The nun
had cocked her two hands over her head and pointed the weapon at him. "Let
her go, NOW!" she demanded.
He let go of his wifeís hand and slipped sideways through the gap between
the nun and the iron gate. As if an angry cobra, the two raised pruning
blades her fangs, Borgia turned and watched the frightened husband run
down the street. Dodging cows and crippled beggars, he never looked back.
If he had, he would have seen the nun shaking out of fear. A bullfighter
lives to defeat the raging bull and with each charge of the animal the
matador deflects death. The matadorís heart beats wildly between fury and
calm, and in the space between the two, he thanks God for survival.
As she walked slowly past MacCumber, she handed him the shears and said,
"When one seeks to destroy anotherís dreams, one will destroy his own.
When one helps another to achieve a dream, his own dreams will be fulfilled.
That manís fate is sealed."
MacCumber was stunned by her action in the courtyard. He thought, how
could a nun know how to use a sword? Who was this woman? Should I be so
bold as to ask? The next day MacCumber had his chance. After morning mass,
Sister Borgia always took a walk to inspect the garden. She plucked the
withered and dying heads of flowers and pulled out any weed that dared
enter her Eden. He followed her that morning, watching her bend down on
one knee to inhale the fragrance of sweet peas. Her hand seemed to caress
the bloom. MacCumber saw a tear fall across her cheek. She blessed herself
and touched the gold crucifix above her heart. She looked up and saw him
"Do you know, Mr. MacCumber, I brought the seeds of these sweet peas
with me from the mother convent in Ireland?"
He smiled; she could grow miracles in the Calcutta sand. Plants native
to India shared the earth with English roses and camellias from Japan.
The two strolled along the paths between the flowers and the Rose of Sharon
thicket. The humming of bees collecting the essential substance to their
lives was all around them. She pointed to blossoms, saying the Latin names.
"This is Convallaria majalis and these are Syringa vulgaris."
MacCumber asked, "Sister, yesterday, when you ran off Rijiís husband,
you said you knew how to use a sword, that you were taught by a bull fighter.
How can this be?"
"I was born in Spain, but as a young, headstrong, and morally corrupt
teenage girl, I ran away to live in France. First I went to Paris, and
then a small village in Provence. My brother was a fledgling bullfighter.
Worried that I would come to great harm living in a country so decadent
as France, my father sent my brother to watch over me. He was my sentinel,
my protector. He kept me safe from the dangers of the career I had chosen
in those days." MacCumber asked. "What danger?" With a painful squint in
her eye she replied, "Drunk sailors and Zouave soldiers." MacCumber tried
to press her for more information, but her raised palm hushed his lips.
"We must go now; the bees are beginning to swarm."
The next day MacCumber joined Rijikari, Sister Borgia, and a recently
arrived nun from the northern provinces on an excursion to the Moti Jheel
bazaar. The new sister was named Teresa. She spoke with a thick Slavic
accent and was joining the school to teach geography and history. She had
recently taken her final vows in the Himalayan village of Darjeeling.
They stopped at a booth displaying Indigo fabrics. Rijikari was intrigued
by the deep blue cotton textile with its pattern of yellow deer dancing
between lotus plants. As she held the fabric against her shoulders, MacCumber
noticed she was wearing an exquisite pair of antique silver earrings. My
friend appreciated jewelry, especially hand made silver. When I first saw
him in the hospital during the war I thought it odd that he wore a bracelet.
At the time I remember thinking he must be homosexual. A soldier might
have a tattoo on his wrist but never jewelry.
Riji told him the earrings were her most prized possession, a gift from
her mother. MacCumber asked her what the significance of the dancer and
the drum was. She replied. "My mother gave these as a gift to me when I
was thirteen." She tilted her head, and with her slim thumb and
middle finger, Riji pushed the earring on her right ear forward so he could
see it better. He wrote that when he leaned forward for a closer look,
a breeze caught a ringlet of her black hair and a tress touched his face.
He caught the scent of the honey she used as perfume. He told me that it
was at that moment that his feelings for Riji changed from being her proud
teacher to an infatuated admirer. Riji, in her soft spoken way, said, "The
engraved earrings are of Shiva Nata, Lord of the Dance. Can you see, in
one of his hands Shiva holds a small drum. The drum represents time. It
ticks and ticks to shut out the knowledge of eternity. In Lord Shivaís
opposite hand he holds a flame"
"Yes," MacCumber said.
She continued, "That is the flame which burns away the veil of time
and opens our minds to the eternal."
The two nuns, Riji, and Jonathan were walking along the crowded street
when a tall woman wearing a colorful madras sari nearly knocked them over.
A British gentleman was following her. The woman turned and smiled wantonly
at him and then disappeared into a brightly painted building. "Where did
she go?" the man asked. MacCumber pointed to the lavender colored door.
Turning his head right and left, as if he were afraid of being seen, the
man entered the building. MacCumber heard him say, "Jeendan, Jeendan, I
will pay you whatever you desire."
MacCumber apologized to the three women who were with him. The man was
obviously seeking the delights of the flesh. Sister Borgia smiled at MacCumberís
embarrassment. "I know the woman, she is the daughter of a concubine in
the Maharaja of Amritsarís harem. The girl is a prostitute, and the building
is a brothel." MacCumber was shocked that the sister knew the woman
and was aware of the whorehouse in her neighborhood.
"Why do men do such things?" Rijikari asked. "It is against Vishnu."
"God created the male to procreate, and women to nurture. Who are we
to question what God ordained? There are two natures of humankind, the
spiritual and the physical. We must learn to love both sides. Do not judge
this man or woman harshly. Do you remember Magdalene? After Christ was
crucified our Lord guided her from Calvary to Marseilles. The clergy tell
us she was a prostitute forgiven by Jesus. Could it be she was his wife
and it was she who forgave Jesus? " Borgia replied.
MacCumber was appalled. "What do you mean? Jesus is the Son of God,
and therefore perfect. He is without sin. Magdalene could not forgive the
Son of God!"
"Jonathan, you forget Jesus was a man. In his embodiment he acted accordingly.
Perfection is becoming one with God. Until we reach absorption into god,
we are not perfect. Women know, accept, and forgive imperfection."
Sister Borgia took Rijikari, along with Sister Theresa and MacCumber,
to the museum to see an exhibition of ancient Hindu sculpture. Riji was
interested in the art of the village temples. But once there they discovered
a display of watercolors by the French artist, Eugéne Delacroix.
Borgia was familiar with his work. She spoke eloquently about color and
light. Her knowledge about painting theory was astonishing. When MacCumber
asked how she knew of the French artist, the sister replied, "During the
time I lived in France, I met two artists and one of them taught me about
who was good and who was not and how to really see art, not because itís
pretty, but because it reveals passion and truth."
Later that day, they trekked to the city park for a picnic. Sister Borgia
sent Rijikari to fetch tea from one of the vendor shops lining the park.
Borgia laid a blue cloth on the ground and MacCumber placed their basket,
filled with chapatties, chutney, and mangos, on one end to keep the cloth
from shifting in the breeze. While Riji was gone, he took the opportunity
to ask Borgia more about her friend the artist and who the matador was
who taught her to fight bulls. "Jonathan, you know how much I love my sunflowers
in the garden. Before I became a nun I lived in a small village in Southern
France. I met the painter there and he brought me Sunflowers. He was Dutch,
a kind and thoughtful man, who often quoted the bible. He was a client
of mine. I liked him, but he was crazy. He caused me to lose my job. At
first I was angry with him, but soon after I came to understand that he
was the one who set me free. Nothing is by accident, every circumstance
has a purpose. It was he who helped me find the place where I now reside.
I am now a nun, not the whore I once was. I am a teacher and a gardener.
If he had not caused me to be run away, I would not be here. I am grateful
to him." She could see the shock on Jonathanís eyes.
Jonathan said her words were interrupted by the sound of a womanís shrill
cries for help. MacCumber said he looked up to see Rijikari running toward
them. Her husband, brandishing a knife, was on her heels. Jonathan jumped
to his feet as Rijikari fell into the arms of Borgia. My friendís fist
caught the man flush on the jaw and the husbandís feet flew out from under
him. Jonathan was on him in a flash, his elbows flailing and knuckles pummeling
away at the manís body. Blood was gushing from his nose and lip. Rijiís
husband whimpered and covered his face with his hands, pleading with my
friend to stop hitting him, but I guess Jonathan was consumed by anger
and retribution. When I wrote back to Jonathan (my non-violent friend)
about the incident, he replied, "The bastard did not deserve leniency."
Jonathan knew the brutality inflicted by Rijiís husband. My friend had
read her stories written as fiction, yet based on the reality of her life.
She had written it in such a way as to purge the horror in her head and
not name the real protagonists or reveal her identity. Jonathan clearly
understood it as a biography of Riji. The rapes, the frequent beatings,
and the attempt to burn her, were all revealed.
One night, in a drunken state, Rijiís husband had thrown hot cooking
oil at her. She jumped behind a chair. The oil hit the wooden slats, but
still managed to splash her arm and burn through the sari she was wearing.
Her wounds were far more cavernous than the holes in her skin. There was
no way out. She was a tortured prisoner trapped in a demeaning marriage
system where all power belonged to the husband.
In his letter about the fight, Jonathan wrote that a large crowd gathered
around them, jumping up and down, howling and cheering for the Indian to
clobber him. In the melee Rijiís husband dropped the knife and she picked
it up off the ground and pushed it into her husbandís side pulling it out
so fast that no one saw it happen. Her mortally wounded husband stumbled
a few steps away from her and then dropped to the ground. The knife fell
from her hand to the ground. Partially hidden within the dust kicked up
in the scuffle, the young Teresa grabbed it and slid it up the sleeve of
her habit. Sister Borgia screamed at Riji, but Riji could not comprehend
where she was, or in what realm she existed. Finally Borgia slapped Riji
back into the world. She grabbed Riji by her wrist and, leaning down, offered
her free arm to help MacCumber to his feet. The three of them ran from
When they reached the school, Borgia told Rijikari. "Get your children
and quickly pack your most precious possessions."
Riji ran across the dusty courtyard. She burst into the small classroom
where her children were drawing pictures on slate boards. Her hair was
disheveled, her face flushed. Her clothes were covered in dirt and there
was blood on her sleeve. The young novitiate that was teaching the children
was so frightened by Rijiís appearance that all she could do was bless
herself with the sign of the cross over and over. Riji lifted Maka into
her arms and grabbed Sundarís hand. The two crying children ran with their
mother to the far end of the compound. Bursting through the door of the
dirt-floored apartment, Riji quickly gathered as much of her childrenís
clothing as she could. With the exception of the hand mirror and comb her
parents had given to her on her 16th birthday, she did not take
any other personal possessions. All her sariís, shoes, and undergarments
were paid for with her husbandís money and she wanted no part of keeping
things that came from him. She grabbed Makaís favorite stuffed toy bear.
They ran to Borgiaís office.
Borgia told MacCumber, "If you value Riji and the children, you must
take them out of the country. If she stays, the manís family will find
them and revenge will be the outcome. Riji will be stoned to death, Maka
burned as trash, and Sundar sold into slavery. They have to escape. You
have to escape. Leave now. Never, absolutely never, should you, or they,
return to India!"
My friend assured her that he would take care of them. Jonathan mentioned
his connections in Della Chack and that he could hide them there until
the situation blew over.
She said to him that the only thing in India that blows over are typhoons,
and they usually destroy everything in their path. She repeated her demand
that they all get out of India quickly, warning Jonathan that to linger
would be fatal to all of them. He put his hand on the Bible sitting on
Borgiaís bed stand and swore heíd get them to America.
As Jonathan described the scene, she bent down on one knee and put her
hand under the desktop. Pulling out a yellowed envelope, she handed it
to MacCumber. Inside were fifty bills of French francs and Indian rupees
in large denominations. Borgia and MacCumber argued briefly over the gift,
but were interrupted by the gardener. Amar smeared dark clay over MacCumberís
face, feet, and hands to disguise his white skin. He then helped dress
my friend in Hindu attire.
Borgia pleaded for them to leave quickly. She was afraid the police
would be there at any moment. MacCumber said that he held the nun in his
arms until Amar pulled him away saying, "Sahib, we must leave now."
MacCumber laid in the back of an ox cart with Rijikariís frightened
sons. The children and Jonathan were hidden under a tarp covered with stalks
of Borgiaís prized sunflowers. As Amar settled next to Riji on the cartís
driving bench, he handed her a scarf and told her to cover her face so
that no one would recognize her. He cracked his whip and the donkey lunged
forward, its hoofs clicking and clacking on the cobblestone road. If anyone
saw them they would think Amar and the woman were flower merchants heading
to the Chowringhee market.
They passed the governorís palace and made their way to the Hooghy River.
The river flows through Katwa and Kalna and then begins to change course
as it enters the city of Nurpur and the channel of the Ganges. At that
point, it turns south and empties into the Bay of Bengal. After days of
grueling travel, the four exhausted escapees boarded a French steamer bound
for the South Seas.
Fear and excitement traveled with them. The voyage would be long and
arduous, but Rijikari, her sons and Jonathan would be safe. Paradise was
10,000 miles away.